The Toxic Impact of Quantifying Every Aspect of Our Lives

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

When we start seeing people as numbers, we’ve voluntarily chosen to quantify or our humanity.

  • We see downloads instead of listeners.
  • We see book sales instead of readers.
  • We see subscribers, followers, and traffic instead of people and connections.

We see in the words of Austin Kleon eyeballs instead of hearts.

As a result we create distance instead of closeness.

But this distance comes at a cost.

In his book Leaders Eat Least, Simon Sinek wrote about abstraction. Leaders who intentionally distance themselves from their employees end up making harsh, ruthless decisions, with a complete disregard for empathy. Because of abstraction, they just see numbers. They “sacrifice the people to save the numbers” instead of “sacrificing the numbers to save the people.” Massive layoffs are often followed by outrageous bonuses and substantial executive compensation. One person’s life gets wrecked while another person thrives.

Social media has created an artificial pecking order and manufactured consent on the definition of status. The more fans, friends or followers you have the higher you are in the pecking order, and the greater your status.

It’s a perfectly designed system to fuel ego, envy and perpetual comparison to the deliberately curated and carefully edited life that we portray. When you combine that with the work of attention engineers whose sole job is to get you hooked and behavior modification technology, it’s no wonder Jaron Lanier was able to up come up with 10 reasons to delete your social media accounts.

Sometime last summer I met one of our podcast listeners who tutors kids in junior high. One of them came to her in tears because she and a friend posted the same picture on Facebook and the friend got 100’s of likes and she got 2. As adults, we can’t help but roll our eyes and think “that’s so stupid. Get over it.” But for an adolescent brain, the sting of every experience feels permanent because it’s still developing. The simple act of quantifying the experience of two friends taking a picture caused one of them to feel a sense of deficiency.

A leader who is intentionally distant from his employees knowingly participates in abstraction. An algorithm on the other hand doesn’t have to even take ethics, empathy, or humanity into consideration. Abstraction is built right into its design.

In Cal Newport’s talk about quitting social media, he talks about the fact that intentionally chose not to use Facebook when it was started. This enabled him to develop an objective perspective.

As someone who has used Facebook for 10 years, built a platform and an audience, I can’t help but question my objectivity when I know that my behavior has been modified. The other day my friend Danielle Laporte shared a picture of Jaron Lanier’s book on instagram. I was kind of amazed that nobody commented on the irony. But when someone with such a substantial audience on a platform shares a picture of a book that promotes ditching that platform, it’s safe to say we’ve arrived at a major inflection point.

So where does this leave us? Imagine a social network in which there was no visible ranking, no fan, follower, or friend counts, no notifications. You see what you want to see, not what the algorithm wants you to. Instead of something that gets us addicted, it’s something that gets us truly connected. It’s utopian, idealist, and probably unrealistic.